Patient One

In the interest of keeping up with semi-weekly posts as well as running my weekly D&D game, I’ve decided to post some of my notes for said game when there’s no other topic I’d like to discuss. They’ll probably range from separate monsters to encounters to adventures to house rules and system hacks. I’ll also provide commentary on the intent of each design, as well as whether or not it worked and reasons for it. The usual approach. So while I doubt you’d find much you can lift straight out (and you’re welcome to), hopefully the thinking behind these mechanics will allow you to adapt them to your game, if you so choose. Lets kick things off with one of the main bosses of the campaign, a Lord of Madness, the Patient One.

Necessary background

Keeping it short: lords of madness are the designated Big Bads of the setting. Lovecraftian aberrant quasi-gods. At the end of the first adventure (at level 1) the characters saw an iceberg grind to a halt outside their home village. Trapped inside the iceberg was the Patient One and its many, many offspring. The iceberg has served as a constant threat and as an ever-changing deadly dungeon, into which the PCs have ventured a number of times throughout their adventures. The Patient One had tried to break out once before, and I have made sure to use some of the same elements in this adventure, particularly the non-existent squares, the voids. So there stood the party on top of the iceberg, now level 25, having towed it with their small armada of ships to the Blue Sea, a McGuffin perfectly pure location in which no unnatural tainted aberrant thing could exist. Now they just had to make sure the Patient One wasn’t going to escape.

Encounter 1: Into the depths

The ice cracked beneath her feet.  Which wasn’t particularly surprising, considering what felt like several tonnes of it lay on her shoulders, a collapsed wall, threatening to crush her and her friends.  Ice above, ice below.  Icy tomb.  Gods, but she hated this place.

The others finally scrambled, teleported or phased out to safety beyond, only Witerich hesitated at the edge.

“Go already!”

Another step.  Cracks spreading out below…and above…?  She raised her head to see the purple worm break through the ice she was holding, opening its maw right above her head.  “Oh shit,” was her first thought.  Then: “Typical!”

And then the jaws clamped down.

Oozes and tainted creatures that have been frozen in the walls of the iceberg all this time have started burning. Roused from their slumber, they rushed outside, evaporating as poisonous gases on their way. For this encounter, I wanted to keep things moving, as well as underscore that this was their last foray into the ice and the epic nature of the challenges they now overcome.

Basic set-up: spiral staircase* cut into ice leading to the Patient One; 15 poison and acid damage per round from the gases; 6 minion oozes spawn each round, which explode into a cloud of dust when killed, doing more poison and acid damage. At the end of the first round, a shape can be seen in the depth of the ice.  The shape resolves itself into a tainted purple worm tunneler by round two. As the party is rushing down the stairs, on round three the iceberg itself rolls initiative, and on its turn a diagonal crack appears through the walls and stairs just ahead of the party: a large portion of the iceberg is about to slide off. On its next turn, the ice breaks; the purple worm gets torn in two, the assassin it had swallowed is trapped with its upper half in the rapidly descending sheet of ice. Lower half of the purple worm thrashes, upper half continues trying to eat the assassin, chasing him back to the party, breaking the staircase on the way. Oozes keep creeping up. The whole structure creaks. As the party finally reaches the floor, another portion of the iceberg collapses inwards, threatening to flatten them all. Up steps the fighter, catching it on her shoulders (the iconic image of Hulk holding up a mountain in Secret Wars might have been an inspiration). Crazed half-of-purple-worm bears down on her through the ice she’s holding and swallows her, so now she’s holding the ceiling while wearing purple worm.

I’ve started with a few beats I wanted to see happen (worm getting sliced in half, someone trapped above, fighter holding the ceiling), and threw them at the party with about a round of warning as I felt appropriate, trusting the mechanics to work out. This resulted in a very fun, fluid, mobile encounter. It wasn’t about killing every enemy on board. It played fast and felt faster. Lessons learned: every now and then try dramatically changing up your battlefield half-way through the encounter. Not only will that feel like a scene from an action movie, but it’ll also feel like two encounters, thus each one twice as fast.

Encounters 2: Belly of the Beast

To an observer this might have appeared almost comical. World’s greatest heroes fighting an empty room… and getting trounced by it. The action had something in common with drunken marionette theater. They dangled in the air, smashed into the walls and one another, shouted at and attacked things that just weren’t there. Except something was there after all. Something caused parts of the Seals, burning fiercely and magnificently, to just disappear. Something shrieked in pain and outrage. Something made the heroes grit their teeth and look at each other in desperation.

An observer wouldn’t last five seconds there.

At the heart of the iceberg, surrounded by 3 artifact seals (each about 10 meters in diameter), is the trapped Patient One. Except it appears as if nothing’s there, and everything shimmers, shifts and warps, like looking into a fun-house mirror. The seals focus and amplify the energy of the Blue Sea. Every creature inside the sphere made by the seals takes damage equal to its taint score each round. Taint score? If you remember 3e Unearthed Arcana or Heroes of Horror, you’ll recognize the term. I’ve taken the general idea of some evil being so terrible it permanently twists minds and bodies, applied it to aberrations, and adapted to 4e. The exact rules for it are still in a flux, I’m ashamed to say. I was even considering proposing it for a Dragon article – and I still might. Anyways. All you really need to know is that it’s bad, mmkay. And at the end of an encounter any creature can use a consumable item to burn some of it away, along with a healing surge. By epic the rate is 10 points of taint per HS. Otherwise it becomes much, much harder to get rid of. Back to our aberrations.

The Patient One occupies the entire sphere, just  a bit out of phase with reality, hiding from the searing pain of the seals. And, unsurprisingly, reality breaks down within, resulting in voids the party has seen before: squares on the battlemap which don’t exist, making all adjacent squares touch. They brought on a major headache last time around when trying to calculate areas of effect, so this time I made a simple change: they don’t affect said areas unless they are on the edge, in which case the area extends to each adjacent square. Each round, a few more voids appear as I drop marble beads representing them on the map randomly, letting them scatter.

The Patient One uses its tentacles to move around the non-existent bits of reality (how’s that for a mindfuck), and drag them into the seals. Oh, and the tentacles are invisible and insubstantial:

They can spend a standard action to move a void 2 squares, but only one tentacle can move a void per turn. Once 3 voids are in the space of a seal, that seal is broken. It’s best not to let that happen. The PCs can also make an Arcana check as a minor action to move a void 3 squares. 4 tentacles are present at the start of the encounter, with 2 more phasing in each round, up to a grand total of 10. This may seem like overkill, but they’re focused on the seals, and won’t bother PCs unless PCs bother them. Plus, this is the warm up for the boss fight, it has to be tough. When 5 tentacles have been cut down (or when I feel like it), the encounter goes into phase 2, and the party gets to enjoy an equivalent of a short rest.

The idea that players can voluntarily take on taint to get some benefit is a very important one. Corruption is pervasive, it’s the easy way out. I’ve trialed it in these encounters, and it worked marvelously. Heroic sacrifice! Also, remember that the seals burn all things impure each round, thus making it a self-inflicted environmental damage, something to keep the pressure up. About half way through the encounter, the players suggested I should let them take on taint when they hit a tentacle as well as when the tentacle hits them. Who am I to prevent them from tainting themselves faster.

I’ve expected them to pick a tentacle at a time, and nuke it in a round. But they’ve focused on preserving the seals, which made the whole encounter drag. Plus, the tentacles proved to be a bit too sticky, with the cleric never leaving their grasp, though that’s the inherent problem of grabs. Overall, the encounter went over well enough, with the party successfully using its wide range of abilities to overcome invisibility, insubstantialness and grabs, but I’d deal ongoing damage to the tentacles (from the seals burning them) were I to run it again. It is something I considered before the game, but ultimately abandoned. On the other hand, they saved all three seals, which meant the Blue Sea will eventually recover. In some sense, they chose to drag it out to achieve a better result. Hrm. Lessons learned: there’s a very fine line between a tough encounter and a dragged-out encounter. It’s best to have some sort of abort mechanism in place – and thankfully I did. Also, if you’re going to have enemies spawn throughout your encounter, let players know somehow if there’s a finite supply of them or not.

Encounter 3 – Kicking and Screaming

Wave of sickness spread out through him. He could feel his body being warped, violated. This wasn’t the agony of fire, or steel or claw. Those he knew, and knew well. This was the agony of change. Agony of alienation from reality itself. Agony of becoming the thing he hated, the thing that wasn’t meant to be. And the scariest thing was, it wasn’t an agony at all.

Still he held on to the monstrosity, with his nails and teeth dragging it out of its hiding hole, phasing it into view. Dragging it into the world, to be judged by the Goddess. 

“Burn, you fucker.”

With its tentacles sufficiently damaged, the Patient One itself started bleeding into reality:

And in the meantime, its tentacles continued either pulling the voids or dragging the PCs into it. The statblock itself is largely adapted from an existing monster – Turaglas. It’s more of a terrain feature than a monster, really. Here, the players went to town. They waited a couple of rounds until they were good and ready, then all grabbed the bastard god and dragged much of its bulk into reality by taking on some of its unreality into themselves. It’s size went from 5×5 to about 12×12. Needless to say, it didn’t last long with that much ongoing damage. Unfortunately, the Patient One wasn’t that scary as a monster. Most of the time, only a single PC was within it somehow, and it just didn’t do that much damage to concern them. This is definitely something I’d change. Also, the players have mentioned afterwards that had they known it only had a thousand hit points, they would have just attacked it, and probably would have ended this sooner. Other than that, this encounter went splendidly. Lessons learned: tricky and flavourful ways of defeating the enemy need to be actually better than the usual “hit them over the head until they fall” kind.

Next week: Happy end? HahahahahaNO.

*Ah, the spiral staircase. On their first visit, the party got chased onto it by a gelatinous cube. Which failed to hold on to the slanted slippery surface, going all the way down at a high speed, glomping half the party along the way. Happy memories.

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